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The convergence of trends in snacking, protein, portability, bold flavors, less processing and “real food” have been a boon for meat snacks, which have evolved far beyond their historic image as a few pegs at the c-store or truck stop checkout.
“Consumers seem to be actively seeking out meat snacks as alternatives to chips [and other salty snacks] as a healthier option for snacking and convenient sources of protein,” affirms Dave Savidge, director of meat and seafood at Wooster, Ohio-based grocery store chain Buehler’s.
Amid a total snack food category exceeding $13 billion, meat snacks generated more than $383 million in sales for the year ending Dec. 19, 2015, according to data from Schaumburg, Ill.-based Nielsen. Their 14.5 percent growth in sales for that period was second only to popped popcorn, which grew more than 16 percent to just more than $399 million, while much larger salty snack categories like potato chips and pretzels were flat.
“In our stores, we’ve seen category sales more than double in the last year,” Savidge says. “We expect continued growth as new items are introduced and innovation comes into the category.”
While the nutrition community might be torn on whether to classify meat snacks as a health food (see sidebar on page 67), product manufacturers are jumping on that bandwagon.
To be sure, Tony Dunning, EVP of customer development at Minong, Wis.-based Jack Link’s, referred to his employer as a “protein snack company” during an interview with Progressive Grocer at the Food Marketing Institute’s Midwinter Conference in January. “Our core focal point originally was meat snacks and still is meat snacks today, but we’re evolving into many different proteins,” Dunning told Joan Driggs, PG’s editorial director.
Dunning also dispelled a myth about the key audience for meat snacks, assumed by many to be predominantly men, as suggested by Jack Link’s male-dominated, Sasquatch-themed ad campaign.
“A lot of people think the core audience for beef jerky is 80 percent or 90 percent male and 10 percent or 20 percent female, when in fact it’s actually 55 percent male, 45 percent female, because protein is in big demand right now,” Dunning said. “There’s a lot of tailwinds around protein, and we’re really proud of the fact that we’ve led that charge. We’ve found great success through innovation and continuing to make sure we deliver on quality and fun, which is what the brand is really all about.”
That innovation has resulted in what you might call the softer side of Jack Link’s: Lorissa’s Kitchen, a new line of meat snacks made with grass-fed beef, sustainably raised pork and antibiotic-free chicken, and free of gluten, MSG and nitrates.
The brand is named for the wife of President and CEO Troy Link. “She’s had a big hand in developing this brand and bringing it to market, and we’re really excited about it,” Dunning explained. “There really hasn’t been anything to cater to the female consumer in our space.”
According to Dunning, Lorissa’s Kitchen, which includes flavors such as Szechwan Peppercorn Beef and Ginger Teriyaki Chicken, targets specific consumer segments. “It really caters to the ‘Natural Nourisher,’ as far as getting the right thing into her body, the way she wants to shop for herself,” he said, “and there’s really fun flavors that allow her to extend beyond the typical flavors you see in our category.”
To be sure, jerky varieties have moved well beyond the basics.
The newest brands are leveraging desires for authentic flavors and minimal processing.
“People are looking for less mass-produced snacks and foods,” says Greg O’Neal, VP of marketing for Boulder, Colo.-based Duke’s Smoked Meats. “What happened in craft beer is happening in meat snacks. We’ve found that the creativity and small-batch care we put into our meats really resonates with existing and new meat snack category buyers.”
Additionally, O’Neal notes that “more people want real-food snacks. They are reading labels to make sure that ingredients are simple and recognizable. Healthier, more premium meat snacks offer consumers this benefit.”
The latest products from Duke’s feature ingredients like whole roasted Hatch green chiles, diced Serrano peppers, vine-ripened tomatoes, real lime juice and freshly chopped cilantro. “Our Smoked Shorty Sausages are growing rapidly in popularity,” O’Neal says. “We are expanding our lineup to include new flavors as well as new proteins like chicken. By using higher-quality real ingredients and a no-shortcut process, we are able to get loads of flavor into our Smoked Shorty Sausages without using much sugar at all.”
Similarly, Naples, Fla.-based Chef ’s Cut Real Jerky claims to “use only premium cuts of steak and white breast meat,” while Lawless Jerky, hailing from Brooklyn, N.Y., is “hand-crafted, American-made jerky from 100 percent grass-fed beef and pork, free of added hormones, antibiotics or preservatives,” in flavors like Sweet Sriracha, Aloha Teriyaki, Pho, Japanese Curry and BBQ Spare Rib. And Kent, Wash.-based Oberto Brands offers its All Natural line with “clean, simple ingredients.”